EDITORIAL: Lead from behind in Syria

The Arab states are steps ahead of Obama foreign policy

The Arab League is taking the initiative on dealing with the crisis in Syria. It remains to be seen if the White House is ready to fall in and “lead from behind.”

On Saturday, the Arab League voted overwhelmingly to suspend Syria until a way could be found peacefully to end the eight-month uprising against the regime of Bashar Assad. The vote comes in response to Damascus flouting a league-brokered plan that was supposed to have ended the violence. More bad news for Mr. Assad quickly followed. On Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called for Mr. Assad to step down and help usher in “a new phase of Syrian political life.” Beijing broke with Damascus and came out in support of the Arab League’s actions. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the future could not be built on “the blood of the oppressed,” and Syrian rebels rejected proposed talks with the regime. They just want Mr. Assad out.

The Arab League vote clears the way for the United States finally to take concerted action against Syria. It meets the Obama administration’s key foreign-policy litmus test of never doing anything that might offend an Arab leader, except those too weak to fight back. America already has announced a policy of seeking a regime change in Syria. “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” President Obama said in August. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Syrian rebels have taken heart from NATO’s role in the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, which the Obama administration said was a model use of “smart power.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, said last week that the same model may not apply to Syria, that “situations vary dramatically from country to country” and “it would be foolish to take a one-size-fits-all approach and barrel forward regardless of circumstances on the ground.”

Circumstances on the ground grow more familiar by the day. Mr. Assad’s troops keep ratcheting up the violence, but the rebellion keeps growing. An estimated 3,500 civilians have been killed thus far, which is about triple the number of dead that caused the White House to declare the events in Libya a humanitarian crisis that triggered “a responsibility to act” to prevent “violence on a horrific scale.” The strategic case for regime change in Syria is also greater than the bill of particulars against Libya. Gadhafi, for all his many faults, was at least nominally cooperating with the West. Syria is an important Iranian ally and enabler, a regional adversary of the United States, and a designated state sponsor of terrorism since December 1979.

Washington has imposed a variety of sanctions on the Assad dictatorship, but they are unlikely to be decisive, especially when Damascus can count on support from Moscow and Iran. Gadhafi’s strongest backer was impoverished Zimbabwe, and it still took months of NATO airstrikes to dislodge him. The Arab League is signaling acceptance of more vigorous action by the international community against the Assad regime. The world waits to see how smart American power is.

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